How to be a real adult (marriage and mortgage optional)

According to Harvard psychologist Dr Robert Kegan, only one-third of people make it to the higher stages of adult development. Here’s how to be a real adult. 

How to be a real adult_edited

If you’ve noticed a lot of children walking around in adult bodies, you’re not imagining things. According to Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development, only about one-third of people achieve the higher stages of adulthood. And it’s got nothing to do with your age, marital status or financial responsibilities.

The five stages of development

Former Harvard psychologist, Dr Robert Kegan, suggests that adults go through five developmental stages:

  1. Impulsive mind (early childhood)

    The vast majority of adults pass this level.

  2. Imperial mind (adolescence)

    6 per cent of adults operate at this level.

  3. Socialised mind

    58 per cent of adults operate at this level.

  4. Self-authoring mind

    35 per cent of adults operate at this level.

  5. Self-transforming mind

    A mere 1 per cent of adults operate at this level.

Becoming an ‘adult’ involves developing your sense of self, gaining wisdom and learning to have successful relationships. However, about two-thirds of people don’t get past stage three.

What defines an ‘adult’?

Being an adult involves understanding laws, having a sense of right and wrong and “basically acting in a responsible way that won't cause harm to yourself or others,” says Melbourne psychologist Meredith Fuller.

She explains that many people struggle because our society tends to foster a sense of entitlement, short-term thinking, and blaming others, rather than taking responsibility for ourselves.

We’ve tended to elongate the stages of development, like “how much longer it takes for younger people to leave home,” she notes.

Many people are “literally stuck on basic needs, like have we got enough to eat, have we got shelter,” she says. For example, people might regularly order UberEATS because they haven’t mastered shopping or cooking skills.

“If you can't do that, it’s tremendously difficult to move through those other stages,” she says.

The problem is heightened by the loss of a higher sense of purpose, Fuller says. 

“Historically, we might have had a more spiritual or religious imperative. We might have had extended families where you see that developmental process.

“Now, we're in a state where a lot of people just mix with their peers. We’re not exposed to an extended life cycle that causes us to ask questions like, ‘What am I here for? What's my responsibility for contribution to humanity?  So [development is] arrested at that more primitive level of self-care.”

Asking people who they respect or aspire to be like illustrates the issue. “Historically we might have labelled philosophers, scientists, literary people or great artists,” Fuller says. “Most people [now] talk about celebrities or footy stars.”

Signs that you’ve reached adulthood (or not)

If you care about your relationships, community, the planet and other “sentient beings”, you’re on the right track, Fuller says.

Conversely, if you find it hard to maintain significant relationships and “want excitement all the time without being able to tolerate frustration,” it indicates that you might be stuck in the earlier stages. 

Difficulty delaying gratification or a sense of “narcissistic entitlement” are other warning signs. For example, if you can’t tolerate boring jobs at work or wonder “Why can't I be running the company? It doesn't matter that I'm 20,” you might have some work to do.

Tips for becoming more “adult”

Fuller offers these tips for anyone aspiring to higher levels of adulthood:

Get advice

This could be from a counsellor, psychologist, wise elder, mentor or someone in your community, Fuller says. “A wise elder could be a relative, a teacher, a neighbour. Ask ‘who are the people I have great respect for, who seem to think in a different way, who I can talk with about those things?’”

Get educated

Once you’re conscious of issues affecting society and the planet, they’re harder to ignore, Fuller says.

Read widely

It’s far more instructive than “looking at 10,000 photos of what's on someone’s lunch plate,” Fuller notes.

Appreciate the life-cycle

Hang out with people of different ages, especially older people with more life experience.

Get comfortable with discomfort

If you feel sad or lonely, sit with that feeling rather than distracting yourself with social media or shopping.

Feel like online education might be the first step towards “adulting”? It’s a wise move. Study through Open Universities Australia, and you can improve your ability to collaborate and look beyond your assumptions. 

The best part? You can start studying without having to rearrange your life. With thousands of courses available to study online with leading Australian universities, getting started is easy.

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